First-class service on cruise lines now includes gentleman "hosts" who can pour on the charm like James Bond — but don't get any ideas.
On any given voyage, more than 1,600 passengers cross the ocean on the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2, and generally the women passengers far outnumber the men.
So the QE2 — and about 20 other cruise ships — have a number of designated male escorts, most of whom are retired from other careers, whose job is to host tables at dinner and make sure the single women always have a dance partner.
The gentleman hosts have become part of the economic equation to build passenger revenues in the industry, which pulls in about $13 billion every year.
All of the gentleman hosts are single, and on the QE2, they were booked through an agency called The Working Vacation. For $28 a day, they get a first-class room, meals, and their bar tab covered. In exchange, they attend every social function on board, host dinner tables, and hit the dance floor whenever the music starts.
Making sure all the single women are enjoying their trip is not an easy job.
"When you have 150 single women and you have 10 hosts, that keeps us busy," says escort Peter Drew, who lives in New York when he's not at sea. "It's almost like a bakery line."
The hosts are carefully screened as dancers before they are ever allowed to wear the dinner jackets and name tags that identify them. They never dance with the same partner twice in a row. And some of them look as if they stepped off the set of Casablanca — suave, continental, and full of compliments.
They are also screened as conversationalists, and cautioned not to get too personal.
"You know, we're not bragging, but just about every cruise I find women come on to me," says an escort named Jack Ross from Nova Scotia.
On Drew's first cruise, he had a memorable experience with a passenger who wanted to take his photograph. "Where do you want me to pose?" he remembers asking. The woman responded, "In your cabin."
But according to the ship rules, sex with a passenger will get them thrown off the ship and can result in legal trouble.
"I'm not saying it hasn't happened in the past," says escort Omar Ales, who's from Toronto. "But a gentleman would be out, just like that."
Australian passengers Rose and Kate Chaney are mother and daughter and neither had ever heard of gentleman hosts when they signed up for the cruise.
"We thought we'd like to go, and see what the dancing was like," says Rose Chaney. "And it was great. We'd sat down perhaps 30 seconds and someone came and asked us to dance. They're very charming. They're not oily charming, just fun and nice."
Kay Koubek and Olivia Larsen, both widows and friends for more than 40 years, booked their tour in part because there were hosts on board. "The first night we were exhausted. We haven't danced like that in a long time," says Koubek.
Joe Hubchenko, who is divorced, runs a tavern in Key West, Fla. He used to joke with patrons about how he dealt with his loneliness, but being a host is a way for him have companionship.
"In the evening, I shave my right leg, so at least it feels like I'm sleeping with a woman when I go to bed," Hubchenko would say.
Bill Rohlfing, a 73-year-old widower from Southampton, Pa., also battled loneliness after his wife died.
"All my life I kind of felt that somebody needed me," says Rohlfing. "You know, I never really thought of it that much, but after my wife passed away I just kind of had that feeling nobody needed me. I was very lonely."
Now he says his life is enriched by his work on cruise ships. "I think I bring happiness into the lives of other people," he says. "I mean that's, that's the main reason I'm in it."
Ross says he enjoys making the passengers feel cared for. "The important thing to me is to make them feel that they're the most important person in the world at that time," he says.